In 1983, professor William Cronon made his career with Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, a seminal study of how European settlers transformed the ecosystem of early America. Nearly thirty years later, the now distinguished Cronon, President of American Historical Association, finds his career in the middle of another Change in the Land, of a very different variety.
“Whatever you think of its politics, I don’t think there can be any question that the rise of modern conservatism is one of the great turnaround stories in twentieth-century American history,” Cronon wrote in a March 15 blog post, one that would place him directly in the path of that conservative turnaround, as the Wisconsin Republican Party requests to snoop about his email (using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)), furthering a well-coordinated assault on Public Employees in Wisconsin and around the nation.
In the post, Cronon - acting as a historian - places Wisconsin Gov. Walker’s union busting in a broader historical context, carefully, fairly, and “professorially” explaining how conservatives have successfully mounted a decades-long campaign to change the political ecosystem in their favor. In particular, Cronon points out that conservatives have invested in constructing well-funded ideological institutions to systemically Change the Land through organizations like the American Legislative Council Exchange, which coordinates local bills nationally to promote “small government” and low taxes - conservative values, in short.
Just as European settlers cultivated the “wild” terrain to suit their purposes, so have conservative institutions carefully, diligently, and patiently cultivated the political landscape to favor theirs’.
While eloquent, Cronon reveals nothing earthshaking in his blog: he is pointing out the invasive political species of Astroturf, the fake grassroots movements (like the Tea Party) supported by big money industrialists (like the Koch Brothers), which have been widely reported on in the last year by both corporate and independent media. For years, UC Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff has been writing books and articles making essentially the same point, exposing the well-engineered “conservative message machine,” as have countless other professors and instructors (myself included), but with little such reaction. And while his post is particularly well written, it doesn’t seem a candidate for the ire it stirred in The Wisconsin Republican Party and The Mackinac Center (a Michigan based conservative think tank born of the GOP political turn-around Cronon describes).
While Cronon revealed nothing new, he found himself a target of the conservative policy machine because he is the right person, in the right place, at the right time. As a result of the tireless, well-coordinated efforts of think tanks like The Mackinac Center, the political ecology is just right, as Public Employees – and teachers in particular – have become Public Enemy Number One, as is best illustrated by a cartoon on the homepage of The Mackinac Center itself: in the image, we see a slovenly, morbidly obese man eating an enormous piece of pie donning a stained shirt with PUBLIC EMPLOYEE across it, while everyone else starves, skinny with hunger, in line for a food bank. Alas, over the last few months, this anti-public sector, anti-teacher, sentiment has reached the mainstream, as Jon Stewart ingeniously illustrated in a recent segment showing the “lavish cribs” of public school teachers. Indeed, in the wake of the worst failure of private enterprise (as Inside Job shows us), the public sector – and its public servants – has taken the blame, at least as far as conservative media outlets and institutions are concerned.
Cronon is the perfect target for this accumulated conservative ire: inhabiting the highest echelon of the ivory tower, he stands tall in Wisconsin on the front lines of a conservative war against the Welfare State, against unions, against government, against the public sector in general, over half a century and billions upon billions in the making.
And thus, Cronon is at the crux of a significant historical moment. The attack on him, as many have passionately observed, is an attack on academic freedom, on labor, and more broadly, on the public sector itself. This is not an arcane legal matter for the ivory tower to bicker over, but one that is of vital importance to the public in general (the majority of whom is on the side of the public employee unions, according to recent PEW poll).
What You Can Do
Sadly, the Mackinac Center has received bomb and death threats. This is not progressive, and does not honor the humane spirit of the Welfare State that those who believe in the public sector are working towards.
For once, there is something each of us can do which is both humane and effective, to help Change the Land, moving the political ecosystem away from the virulently anti-government ethos of the last year: a colleague from my college, and a few professors from UC Berkeley, have proposed an idea that can help us show solidarity with Cronon, and to help all of us fight for academic freedom, and for the public sector.
You can place the words that the Wisconsin Republican Party and Mackinac Center is hunting for in Cronon’s and other professors’ emails in yours, in whatever benign, even hilarious combination you like – “Scott Walker” “Madison” “Rachel Maddow” “Wisconsin” “Collective Bargaining” – and send it to the Mackinac Center at email@example.com. If you are employed by a university, you can consider also adding these terms at the end of your emails as a statement of solidarity.
Correction: An earlier edition of this post incorrectly noted that the Mackinac Center requested Cronon’s emails. The Wisconsin Republican Party filed this request, and the Mackinac Center filed a similar request with other area universities.